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Serious Games: Changing the World with Transmedia

By Scott Bayer

The eighth annual Games for Change symposium, conducted in New York City, June 20-22 at New York University's Skirball Center, showcased the major players and initiatives of the emerging social impact gaming movement. An authentic and functional execution of media convergence, social impact gaming fuses gaming, online interactivity and social media to achieve positive real world outcomes; so naturally, Games for Change included a keynote address from former US Vice President Al Gore. Asi Burak, creator of the groundbreaking game Peacemaker and co-president of Games for Change with Michelle Byrd, maintains,  "Featuring Vice President Al Gore as the festival's keynote set the tone that games are mainstream and that games for social change and learning make all the sense in the world." Gore clearly concurred, observing that "People need play, and the potential of gaming combined with social interchange media is huge. The question is, Can games change unsatisfying reality?"



Convergence has been a much overused word, with many unfulfilled promises, since the 1980s. Transmedia, however, is truly a convergence new media end-product and process, involving cross-platform content, interactivity (most commonly the Internet), multiple digital arms, and genuine symbiosis among the platforms. "Transmedia in the social change space is highly promising but still in its early stages," Burak notes. "It is much more than a buzz and has proved successful in entertainment. But it demands careful planning and creative execution. The two things that make a transmedia, or cross-media, project work well are genuine collaboration between talents across disciplines with one group or an individual executive -producing; and deep thinking on how the components interact with each other, how they complement and how they enable reaching broader audiences."

So how does the serious gaming world relate to documentary filmmakers, and why should Games for Change be of interest to them?  For one thing, Michelle Byrd ran the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP ) for years and knows documentary inside and out--particularly the incubation process that is integral to her approach at Games for Change. Secondly, the co-founder of the organization, Suzanne Seggerman (who received a special achievement award this year for increasing attendance at the conference from 40 in 2004 to over 800 now) began her career in documentary, having worked on Ken Burns' award-winning PBS series The West. In addition Games for Change sports the IDA, the Tribeca Film Institute and SXSW as institutional partners. The Advisory Board includes Tracy Fullerton, professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and Carla Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute's Documentary Film Program, and the organization has attracted major support from the AMD Foundation, the  John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Specifically related to documentary, this year's Transmedia Award went to Inside the Haiti Earthquake, from director Katie McKenna and her team at PTV Productions, Inc., which incorporates documentary footage in its game. Two of the projects that were featured in The Demo Spotlight--an opportunity for six project leaders to pitch in front of a panel of world experts--were based on original documentary projects. Climbing Sacred Mountain,from Michella Rivera-Gravage and Sapana Sakya of the Center for Asian American Media, is based on Sakya and Ramyata Limbu's  documentary Daughters of Everest.   SOS_SLAVES is a component of the transmedia project Sands of Silence: A Personal Journey into the Trafficking of Women, produced by Chelo Alvarez-Stehle and her team, and funded by Latino Public Broadcasting.


The home page for Katie McKenna/PTV Productions' Inside the Haiti Earthquake, which won the Transmedia Award at Games for Change.



Burak describes The Demo Spotlight as, "a successful session that was modeled after similar events in the documentary space. Michelle and I looked closely at Hot Docs, The Good Pitch and other formats. We really liked the transparency of the process, and the professional way in which the conversation between the creators, funders and mentors was managed."

Alvarez-Stehle relates that the Games for Change experience proved extremely beneficial to her: "A major game developer came up to me right after my pitch and I made numerous useful contacts. I believe that game-makers can do amazing things with a filmmaker's footage because of their uniquely different mindset and the movement to make games for good use offers limitless possibilities." Mason Funk, a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker, says that he came to Games for Change primarily to solicit business for his company, Channel Road Films, and successfully generated a number of leads.



 From SOS_SLAVES, which Chelo Alvarez-Stehle and her team demonstrated at Games for Change. Illustration: Ian Peter Hosfeld

Through its production unit, Games for Change is currently working on projects that should be of interest to documentarians. According to Burak,  "This includes Half the Sky, based on Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's bestselling book about women's oppression and empowerment--the most ambitious transmedia project outside of the commercial space. We are responsible for the game components--a global Facebook game to raise awareness and drive real-world action, and mobile games in India and Africa targeted at women and girls in remote communities. This project could also show the way for others on how to build a strong collaboration between filmmakers and game developers."

Games for Change's commitment to documentary extends to its own events; the organization commissioned Cory Wilson of The Collaborative to create nine short documentaries about the symposium as it was happening, and he is in post-production on a more comprehensive piece about Games for Change. Notes Wilson, "It was an amazing event, with some of the most intelligent, dedicated and forward-thinking people you can find, from Michelle and Asi to an array of community stakeholders: foundations, developers, designers, organizations and academics." 

One of these stakeholders is the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Alyce Myatt, the director of the Media Arts Division, "We're now accepting applications for games of all types, along with proposals for mobile, Web content, dramatic narrative films as well as documentaries. We convene a peer-review panel comprised of experts in the genres proposed. They use the criteria of ‘artistic excellence' and ‘artistic merit' in deciding which proposals receive funding. The deadline for applications is September 1, 2011.  We held webinars to answer people's questions on June 15  and on July 13.  [The June 15th webinar can be found here.]  For those projects that receive funding, the expectations are not just for a film but also an engagement campaign, which could include a website, NGO partners, a social media strategy, a transmedia strategy and more. In the current noisy media environment, these are all essential activities if a project is to be seen or, in the case of games, played." Regarding the attendees at Games for Change, Myatt expressed the hope that "in the future there are more filmmakers in attendance. Thinking about games requires one to think differently about the presentation of information. It's not for everyone, and I don't believe in the ‘gamification' of everything," but I do think that more filmmakers would find game paradigms as liberating."

 "Social impact gaming is now a mature community and movement that can't be ignored, with bridges to other communities such as independent film and documentaries," Burak maintains. "Moving into social media and games is a great opportunity for documentary filmmakers to reach beyond the ‘converted' and get to audiences that won't watch PBS or pick a documentary on Netflix. At the same time, it's very demanding; it puts filmmakers out of their comfort zone. It also expands the funds needed and forces them to focus on many fronts at once. This could hurt their chances to succeed, and in other cases create a ‘thin' layer of new media over the documentary, one that is not deep enough to support it. I would recommend filmmakers who are looking into games to work closely with game designers who are top experts in their craft."

H. Scott Bayer is the editor/publisher of Indie Film Reporter and writes about independent film, filmmakers and production technology for several trade publications and broader audience newspapers when not working on his own or other peoples' films.